Hot Buttons & Pet Peeves

You will never see the word "guffaw" in any of my manuscripts. There's something so mocking, condescending, and coarse about the word, I hate it.

I'm just as adamant about the word "feisty" when applied to a book's heroine. I find it a patronizing, belitting word, and I see red each time it leaps out at me in print.

And don't get me started on overly-precocious kiddies with "adorable" lisps. Or badly-rendered Scottish brogues and wimpy, "dust-mote" heroines, who listlessly float through their own lives. Argh!

So why am I beginning this fine Tuesday with a list of my pet peeves? Mostly, it's because, although they're sort of silly (I'm sure there have been some great stories out there that feature a guffawing, villainous Scotsman, a feisty heroine, and her adorably-lisping, precocious kid brother) they prejudice me so severely, there's no way for me to see through to the story.

Readers, agents, and editors all have their pet peeves as well. Although I've seen descriptions of a character "fighting his demons" on many a cover flap and novel I've enjoyed, agent Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel) can't stand this particular phrase. Though I enjoy a good prologue (as do many editors and readers, when they're well done) agent incognito Miss Snark hates 'em. Other agents and editors can't see past characters bearing certain overused names ("Bella" springs to mind, though I can't recall which agent said that) or names that trigger painful memories. ("Yowza!" I picture some editor exclaiming, "My hideous brother-in-law, who chews off his toenails and spits them into teacups, is named Jason! I can't stand this story!")

The point is, you can never know when you're going to tread upon some reader's pet peeves, and you absolutely can't control it. Everyone has hot buttons - quirky personal triggers. It's really the luck of the draw whether you end up pushing one or not.

That said, you can increase your odds of success by avoiding common pet peeves. Within my genre, many readers are completely cool with a villain offing a busload of nuns, but show an "on-screen" episode of animal or child abuse, and you'll be snowed in by a blizzard of irate-o-grams for sure. (Don't ask me how I learned this. I admit to nothing.) Many romance readers hate long separations between the hero and heroine, protagonist with teenaged children (babies and toddlers are preferred), and even the slightest whiff of infidelity. Violate these "taboos" at your own risk, or if you choose to do it, realize what you're up against.

When it comes to the enjoyment of a story, prejudices and readers' genre expectations can play a very strong part. What are some of your pet peeves, either words, character traits, or plot lines that yank you out of the reading experience completely?


Suzan Harden said…
The forty-something guy and the TSTL eighteen-year-old virgin. AARRGGHH!

That's not to say I have a problem with the reverse, which is why I drag Nancy B. to Twilight movies. LOL
Joni Rodgers said…
Lack of quotation marks.

I get why some authors do that, but to me as a reader, it feels inhospitable and haughty. Rules are meant to be beautifully broken, of course, but I love the structure of our language. It makes for a civil, welcoming environment when we all agree to abide by a few basic traffic laws.
Anonymous said…
I have too many to list! lol

Lark said…
Paranormals where every dilemma is resolved by a character discovering a new "power" or the appearance of a new kind of supernatural being. Those solutions seem just plain lazy.

And I love a good historical, but the overuse of the labels rake and rogue to describe the misunderstood hero in the titles and cover blurbs drives me nuts.
Barbara Sissel said…
Excessive whining.

I have compassion for a character's pain, but I want them to come past it. I want to go with them on their journey and to be there at the end when they have triumphed.
I second Joni on lack of quotation marks and add strange use of italics. So many of my students use italics to show when a character is thinking, without realizing that if done well, you shouldn't even have to notate thought in the third person close perspective. Or even worse, they'll put the italics and then add "She thought" or "he thought." Also overuse of adverbs in dialogue tags, such as "she said frowningly" or "he replied cheerfully." Much easier to cut the tag altogether or just use a simple "said."

And finally anything that is hopelessly cliche.

LOL Suzan.
jeanna Thornton said…
all action, no emotion...that closes a book for me


an emotionally weak character will get under my skin...

A good post, Colleen!
Thanks so much for the great contributions. I agree with every one... and Bobbi, I know EXACTLY which recent read you're referring to.

I'm esp. annoyed by the quotation mark thing, which seems so very snooty.

Another thing that really bugs me is the deus ex machina ending, where characters are saved by any stroke of blind luck -- but your comment about the discovery of unexpected powers, Suzan, amounts to the same darned thing.
I had a student one time defend his lack of quotations up and down and all around. "But it's my styyyyyle, man!" He said this despite the fact that every single person in the room said they found his chapters incredibly distracting to read, and that they spent much more time trying to decipher who said what and where the breaks were than actually reading. "But it's my styyyyyyle."


Oh, and I'm worried I have a "snow ex machina" ending, although nobody on my committee thought so. But it worries me. Then again, right now everything worries me.
Oh, and Jeanna, I'm with you on the all action and no emotion--I know exactly what you mean! I also have a problem with the other way around, though. Or I guess I should say all thinking/emoting/etc. and no action. If there's psychological action, I'm cool, but if there's neither psychological action nor physical action, I start to get antsy--unless I'm reading Italo Calvino or Annie Dillard. There are some writers whose prose is just so beautiful I really don't care. They could be writing about a speck of dust and I'd love it.

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